Foreign Investment in China

China employees during WFOE formation
Be safe. Hire after your China WFOE has been formed.

If you are a foreign (i.e., non-Chinese) entity with no legal presence in China, you cannot directly hire any employees in China. The basic rule is that you cannot hire a Chinese individual until after you have formed an entity (e.g., a WFOE) there and violating this rule can (and nearly always does) bring all sorts of bad things down on everyone involved. See Doing Business in China with Deportation or Worse Hanging Over Your Head.

What though do you do if you are in the process of forming your WFOE in China? Can you bring on employees during that time to assist with setup and other such things? Surely during this usually three to five month period, it is okay to bring on people and pay them as “employees” and then “convert” them over to legal status employees as soon as the WFOE is formed. Unfortunately, this is technically not allowed; there is no way for a foreign entity to hire a Chinese national “directly” unless and until it has an entity (a WFOE or a Joint Venture) in China. Sending illegal payments to your Chinese “employees” is not “hiring directly;” that is engaging in illegal activity before the WFOE is formed, and it is generally not a good way to start.

Though there is absolutely nothing in Chinese law that allows for “hiring” an “employee” before a WFOE is formed, the truth is that none of our Chinese lawyers have heard of anyone getting in trouble for this. This is not to say though that bringing on workers during the formation phase of your WFOE is not without risks. First off, past performance is no guarantee of future performance. Second, everything in China is somewhat local and that is particularly true of anything related to employment. See China Employment Law: Local and Not So Simple. In other words, what works in Shenzhen may not work in Shanghai, and vice-versa. And you must realize that for tax collection reasons the Chinese government is on a constant lookout for foreigners doing business in China without a WFOE and they have become exceedingly good at finding them.

The biggest risk of bringing on workers during the formation phase of your WFOE probably comes from the workers themselves. If things go well with them, no problem. But things very often do not go well with Chinese “employees.” Here is an all too common situation: a foreign company hires a Chinese person to work on the ground before the WFOE comes into existence. This Chinese person does something illegal in China and the foreign company informs the Chinese person that he is fired.  The Chinese person then says: “you cannot fire me because my engagement was illegal and that means you are operating illegally in China and everything I did that you say was illegal was done for the company and so you (the company) were doing illegal things too. I know more about these things because I am the one who was doing them but if I report them I won’t get in trouble for them, you will.”

If the foreign company terminates the employee that individual will no doubt files a lawsuit for unlawful termination AND report the foreign company to the Chinese government and then the WFOE and its management get in trouble, in addition to having to take the employee back because the termination was unlawful. The best resolution at this point is virtually always to reach a settlement with the “employee,” but because the “employee” has so much leverage in this sort of situation, the company usually has to pay quite a lot of money to extricate itself from the rogue “employee.”

Even after the WFOE is formed the new WFOE is at some risk of one of its pre-WFOE “employees” ratting it out for the pre-WFOE hiring, but that is much rarer. To ameliorate this risk, we always advise that you give your employees seniority and full other credit for any time spent working for your company during its pre-WFOE days.

Bottom line: Not bringing on Chinese employees directly while in the process of forming your China WFOE can be inconvenient, but it is always the safest route.

 

 

 

 

 

China Stock Options and SIPs
China stock options and share incentive plans

Companies often use share incentive programs to motivate employees by tying compensation to their service. Though no foreign person can own stock in a private Chinese company, it is possible for a PRC employee of a foreign company’s Chinese subsidiary to participate in the foreign company’s employee share incentive plan (“SIP”). However, due to China’s currency controls, whether such an employee can actually “cash out” on the benefits of such a program depends on whether the foreign company is or becomes listed on a foreign stock exchange at the time of exercise.

The primary rules on PRC citizen employees participating in a foreign company’s SIP come from the Circular on Foreign Exchange Administration of Domestic Individuals Participating in Share Incentive Plans of Foreign Listed Companies [2012] No.7 (“Circular 7”,  issued by the State Administration of Foreign Exchange (“SAFE”).

  • Registration and Designated Account

Under Circular 7, a foreign listed company can offer SIPs to its PRC subsidiary’s employees in China via an incentive plan. The incentive plan must be registered with the local SAFE office where the foreign company’s domestic agent is located. This domestic agent can be the PRC subsidiary of the foreign listed company participating in the SIP (if multiple places, then the location of the headquarter) or a third party domestic entity that is qualified to provide asset custodian services.

Once the registration is complete, the domestic agent must open and maintain a domestic foreign exchange account designated for handling foreign payments and collecting money for all domestic individuals participating in the SIP of the overseas listed company. Any payments under the incentive plan must go through this special account before they go to an individual participant’s bank account.

Again, just like China employment contracts, we cannot emphasize enough how SAFE registration is highly local. It is critical to consult with the local SAFE office about specific requirements for registration before submitting an application. And just as is true of pretty much anything and everything in China, you do not want to get halfway through the process before you realize you are doing it wrong because this will make doing it right more difficult or perhaps even impossible.

  • Type of Awards Covered

Under Circular 7, share incentive plans mean any incentive plan where the shares of the foreign listed company are offered to directors, supervisors (officers who supervise directors and senior management of a company, a position created under the PRC Company Law), senior management employees, other employees of the domestic company or individuals who have a labor relationship with the domestic company. This includes employee stock option plans, share ownership plans, and any incentive plans permitted by law.

Though Circular 7 does not enumerate the specific types of awards to which it applies, the relevant registration form provides checkboxes for the following types of awards: stock ownership plans, stock options, stock appreciation rights, phantom stock, restricted stock (units), performance shares (units), and stock purchase plans.

  • Nationality of Participants

Circular 7 defines “domestic individuals” as directors, supervisors, senior management and other employees within the scope of article 52 of the Regulation on Foreign Exchange Administration who are PRC, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macao nationals, and other foreign nationals who have resided within China for one year on a continuous basis, except foreign diplomats in China and the representatives of any international organizations in China.

  • PRC Employees and Foreign Private Company Incentive Plans

Certain special rules apply to special purpose vehicles (foreign companies established or controlled by PRC residents or organizations) and PRC law and Circular 7 are silent on domestic individuals participating in purely foreign private companies’ SIPs. This does not mean Chinese individuals are not allowed to participate in a foreign private company’s SIP, but the lack of clear legal authorization makes it practically impossible for PRC individuals to receive benefits or awards under those plans if the foreign company is not yet public by the time of exercise.

And again, because SAFE registration is so highly localized, even though the law does not require registration of a private foreign company’s SIP, it is advisable to consult with the local SAFE office and attempt registration anyway. It doesn’t hurt to ask.

A foreign company with a concrete plan to become publicly listed in the near future can enter into an agreement with its employees in China to offer stock option or other awards. If the company does go public as planned, such awards can then be registered with SAFE and special accounts can be created to process payments in compliance with PRC laws. However, when entering into such agreements, the company should also make sure its employees in China understand that if the company does not go public, the employees may never receive SIP related proceeds due to China’s foreign exchange control rules.

 

 

China WFOE Formation
How to name a China WFOE

Strange but true: WFOE formations are seasonal and fall is for our law firm always the busiest time of the month for WFOE formations. Like clockwork every year, companies come to us in September and October seeking our help in getting their WFOE formed “by the end of the year.”

This plethora of WFOE formations has meant a correspondingly large number of e-mails from our China lawyers to our clients explaining the steps required to form a WFOE in China. Because these emails are helpful to anyone forming a WFOE in China or even just considering doing so, I will from time to time run some of those on here. Today’s email is about choosing a name for your WFOE.

It is necessary to select a Chinese language name for your WFOE. In choosing the name, please note the following:

1. In China, only the Chinese language name has any legal status; as a legal matter, the English is not relevant. This means you can use any English language name you want.
2. Chinese company names follow this rigid structure: [City of formation] Company Name [business type] [Company Ltd.]
So, an English equivalent of a typical Chinese company name would be: Shenzhen ABC Consulting Co. Ltd.
The elements in [] square brackets are fixed by the local government. This means the only thing we need determine now is the Company Name. Since as you can see, company names can get rather long, it is usually best to limit the Company Name part to 3 or 4 Chinese characters at most.
3. The company name must be different than any other company registered in your same kind of business. It is often surprising how many good names are already taken. For this reason, the local authorities require we submit AT LEAST five alternative names and they (and we) prefer ten alternatives if possible.
4. There are two approaches to selecting a Chinese company name. You can pick a descriptive name or you can pick a name that has no meaning but is intended to reproduce only the sound of the parent company name. When descriptive names are used, investors often make the mistake of choosing names that are too long. As noted above, the name should be limited to three or at most four Chinese characters.
5. You will need a native speaker of Chinese to assist you in choosing the names. Some companies simply work this out with their current staff. Some companies hire a public relations or a branding company to work with them on the issue. Note that your Chinese company name will become your identity, so a careful choice is advised. We can give you names of some branding companies with whom we have worked on China matters.
6. When you have chosen your names please submit them to us for a preliminary review. We check to see if there are any obvious conflicts with existing names and we also can give you some advice on the suitability of the names selected. We will then work with the local government to devise the full Chinese name to be used on the WFOE registration papers.
We realize this WFOE naming process can be somewhat confusing and so we urge you not to hesitate to reach out to any of us for further assistance on this or on anything else on which we are working to form your China WFOE.
China WFOE ownership lawyer
Who should own your China WFOE?

Late last year, China revamped its WFOE formation rules and — as much as anything, these new rules have complicated ownership structures. The below is an email from one of our China corporate lawyers to a client

 

As we discussed today, the first task in forming a WFOE in China is to determine what entity will be the shareholder of the WFOE. The basic analysis for this is as follows:

1) You will be creating an entity that will perform services for a fee for its shareholder parent. For this type of WFOE, the normal procedure in China is for the shareholder to be the specific entity for which the WFOE will perform services. In this case, this entity would be ABC US. The Chinese WFOE would then be another of your company’s several direct subsidiaries. Direct ownership of the WFOE by the operating company parent is most common in single owner WFOEs, such as that planned for ABC US here.

2. The alternative you are considering is whether or not the shareholder should be a separate holding company not directly linked to ABC US. This is what is referred to in China as a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV). It would be unusual but permissible to make use of an SPV in your situation. The analysis here is as follows:

a. Over the past decade, the Chinese government has become quite suspicious of SPVs. At one point, the government even moved to prohibit SPVs for WFOE formations. However, after recently adopting the new WFOE formation rules, the Chinese government now permits the use of SPVs. So the current Chinese government rules are neutral on the issue.

b. In the past, one reason investors used an SPV was to hide the true identity of the owners of the WFOE. Under the new rules, the investor must provide a complete organizational chart detailing ownership of the shareholder and identifying the actual controlling person. It is therefore impossible to conceal ownership. Accordingly, an SPV can no longer be used to conceal actual ownership from the Chinese government.

c. SPVs continue to be used in situations where there are several investors in the WFOE. Often these investors are resident in different jurisdictions. In that case, it is common to take all these investors into a single SPV. The SPV is then the single shareholder of the WFOE. Issues such as management, distribution of profits and purchase and sale of ownership interests are handled at the SPV level. In many cases, the SPV is formed in a tax haven such as Hong Kong to allow distribution of profits free of tax. These considerations do not apply in a single shareholder setting.

d. In terms of limiting upstream liability to the shareholder, there is no benefit in making use of an SPV. The WFOE will be a limited liability legal person. The limitation of liability rules apply in China in the same way as in the United States in that the financial liability of the WFOE is limited to the amount of investment. Liability beyond the investment amount occurs only in the case of illegal acts. In general this liability would be as follows:

i. The shareholder will be held liable if the shareholder does not contribute capital and the failure to contribute capital results in non-payment of taxes, non-payment of employee salaries or fraud against creditors.

ii. Directors will be held liable for instructing the WFOE to commit an illegal act. Examples of illegal acts are tax fraud or commission of a significant safety violation.

iii. Directors and the shareholder will be held liable if the WFOE terminates business and does not liquidate in accordance with the provisions of Chinese company law. The penalty here is that both the investor and the directors are placed on a blacklist and prohibited from doing other investments in China. In addition, individual directors will not be able to travel to China since they may be detained.

All of the above liability is very real. However, creating an SPV does nothing to reduce this liability. First, most of the liability falls on the individual directors, not on the shareholder. Second, the Chinese government will use the org chart/actual controlling person information to “pierce the corporate veil” to assign liability to what the Chinese government determines in its own discretion is the actual party/parties in interest.

Note that other reasons for liability arising from WFOE operations are so rare that they can usually be discounted. On the other hand, i, ii and iii above are common and care must be taken not to incur these forms of liability.

3. There may be tax or other operational or accounting reasons to create an SPV for China. In that case, as noted above, the Chinese government is neutral about the use of such SPVs. In considering whether to make use of an SPV, you should do a cost-benefit analysis. Most of our firms’ clients have found the SPV approach to be more trouble than it is worth in the single shareholder setting. However, your situation may be different and we should explore the tax ramifications before you make this decision.

 

 

China WFOE
Photos from Hong Kong Free Press

According to the Hong Kong Free Press (and a number of other newspapers) The Shanghai government this week “ordered the closure of one of the city’s top maternity hospitals saying that it was illegally built on land owned by the armed forces, according to an official notice.”

According to the article, the hospital, Shanghai Redleaf International Women’s and Children’s Hospital, was “founded by Canadian investors” and it had “signed a 20-year lease for prime real estate owned by the military on central Shanghai’s Huaihai Road and started catering to foreigners and wealthy Chinese more than four years ago.” But because “The People’s Liberation Army has been banned from commercial activities since 1998” the hospital was being forced to close. The HK Free Press says this “hospital is one of the largest private business affected by the so-called de-commercialisation of the military to date.” The article then quotes the district government as saying “There exists a matter of illegal construction of building at the Redleaf Hospital. It must be rectified duly in accordance with relevant laws.”

Not surprisingly many patients and hospital employees were not happy with the closure:

A gynecologist who was vacating her workplace Sunday afternoon said that the owners, a Canadian couple, had invested billions [of RMB, presumably] into the clinic. “They had all the right documents and invested so much money… it just doesn’t seem fair,” she said.

Christine Cheng had been working as a nurse at Redleaf’s gynecology department for almost two years. “We spent a lot of money and work building this, and now the government wants us to move… We didn’t do anything bad,” she said.

When news transpired last Thursday that the upscale facility would be forced to close, some of the about 300 staff affected hung banners outside the main building criticizing the facility’s imminent closure.

The banners said that while the hospital supported the government, it shouldn’t be forced to move, adding that it wasn’t a “soft tomato” — a Chinese expression for a pushover. Police arrived on the scene shortly afterward and ordered that the banners be removed.

Louise Roy, director of patient support services at Ferguson Women’s Health, a clinic that rents facilities inside the Redleaf complex, said that staff first heard about the possibility of a closure several months ago, although they were never given confirmation or a specific date. “They’ve told us nothing — absolutely nothing,” Roy said. “We came in this morning, like [we do] every day. Then we saw staff gathered outside where the banners were hung, and then the police came.”

Several women who were being treated at the hospital were clearly upset as they collected their medical records before closure.

“I found out from a friend,” said a 32-year-old patient named Jennifer who would not give her last name because of privacy concerns. She said that she had moved to Shanghai from the U.S. recently and was planning to deliver her child at Redleaf in three months. “I have friends who are due in two weeks or a month — I don’t know what they are going to do,” she said.

Wang Jue, PR supervisor, said that one patient in labor arrived at Redleaf over the weekend and was turned away by government officials. She arrived at another clinic just 10 minutes before giving birth.

Redleaf’s services have been highly sought-after by those who can afford them. A standard cesarean section delivery at the hospital costs 120,000 yuan, and a prenatal package is priced at 24,000 yuan.

Patients have been referred to a temporary clinic while Redleaf is working on a more permanent solution.

I do not know what happened with this hospital beyond what I read in the newspapers. I can though discuss some of what my firm’s China lawyers have seen in possibly similar situations over the years and I do so below.

Maybe fifteen years, a very savvy foreign businessperson came to my law firm with a proposed deal that involved our client building a hotel. Just about everything about the deal was perfect. The location was perfect. The cost was perfect. The deal with the landlord was perfect. There was just one flaw: the land on which the hotel was to be built was owned by the military and that made the entire deal 100% illegal.

We explained the clear illegality of the deal (in writing of course) to our client, who already knew it. But like I said, this was a long time ago and our client was very savvy. His response was something like the following:

Yes, I know this deal is illegal and I know that means I am at risk of the government coming in and shutting us down the day after (or even before) we build the hotel. But we’ve run all the numbers on this and the numbers tell us that all we need to do for this deal to be an economic positive is last three years and every year after that the hotel will be a cash cow. So even though I know full well all the risks, I am willing to take them because I am willing to bet we can last at least three years.

The client did the deal and ended lasting for around eight years before shutdown and ended up making a lot of money. The client’s eight year tenure ended around 7-8 years ago and for probably the last ten years our China lawyers have simply said “no” to such deals, as they have simply become too risky. This does not mean our firm has not continued to see a slew of deals and WFOE formations we know violate China law. I can hear myself saying the following to the companies that bring us such deals and WFOE formations simply because I have said it so many times in my China law career:

What you are doing is illegal and you will get caught. When will you get caught? I don’t know that. It could be tomorrow or it could be a year from now. It probably will be in less than two years from now. Maybe if you had come to me ten years ago with this deal (or WFOE formation) I would not have been so unrelentingly negative about it, but China has changed. China has become incredibly serious about enforcing its laws (at least as against foreign companies, which are the only clients we have in China) and so we see every day what happens to foreign companies that are doing business in China or with China. Not only has China gotten more serious about enforcing its laws, it has gotten way better at enforcement. China is highly computerized and its various agencies and governmental bodies are quite sophisticated at communicating with each other.

We need to change your deal (or your WFOE formation). We are not going to put our reputation on the line for this sort of deal.

Oh, and one more thing. When you go back to your Chinese counterpart or to your own China employees/people on this, they will tell you I am exaggerating or I am naive or I just flat out “don’t know China.” I would never claim “to know China” because I don’t, but I do know is what happens to foreign companies that violate China law and I also know that at least once a month one of our China attorneys gets a call from a foreign company in trouble for having violated some law in China. And when I say trouble I mean they are facing millions of dollars in fines or closure of their operations or in some cases arrest and criminal charges.

Most of the time, the client then explains that they didn’t know that their deal (or WFOE) would be illegal (or as they often put it, “so illegal”). Some of the time though they do view us as naive or as overcautious and they move on.

In 2010, in Cracking Down On Illegal Land Use In China. Do You Really Still Feel Lucky, Foreign Punk? I wrote about foreign companies

The following is an amalgamation of a number (maybe 5 or 6) of conversations I have had over the years with people wanting to register a WFOE (Wholly Foreign Owned Entity) in China fast:

Potential Client: Can you help me register a WFOE in China.

Me: Yes. Not a problem. Do you have a lease yet? Do you know that a legitimate lease is required for the approval of a WFOE?

Potential Client: I know that but we are in a real hurry here.

Me:  Okay. But do you have a lease.

Potential Client: We have a lease but I don’t think it technically will qualify.

Me: What do you mean?

Potential Client: The land is zoned agricultural but my Chinese partner has secured all the okays to allow us to use it for our factory.

Me: Not a good idea. Trust me on that.

Potential Client: The factory has been there for two years without a problem and my Chinese partner assures me that the local government is fine with it.

Me: Don’t do it. Right now, the local government is okay with it. But what if the current mayor is pushed out next week on corruption grounds. Do you really want to be in a situation where you have spent a large amount of money on a space that gets shut down?

Potential Client: I am in a hurry and this is the only space that works.

Me: Are you sure? You are in a hurry, but is it really going to be worth the few months if you get shut down?

Potential Client: I am not going to get shut down. My Chinese partner is incredibly connected.

Me: Incredibly connected to the current local administration, MAYBE, but as I said, that administration could be out the door next week. Beijing checks on these things too and if they see that your facility is illegal, Beijing could see to its shut-down. I just don’t think it a good idea to go into a WFOE illegally and my firm cannot be a part of that.

Potential Client: That’s ridiculous. This is how business is done in China. Are you really saying you won’t take us.

Me: Yes. We won’t take you because we do not want our reputation damaged when you get shut down and we won’t take you because we do not want to be blamed when you get shut down.

Potential Client: Well I am sure I will have no trouble finding someone to help me on this. Good-bye.

I know that at least one of these companies did end up getting shut down (within about a year) because someone at the company who had sided with me on the company not going forward emailed me to tell me of this.

Now might be a good time for you to read the following:

Just yesterday, in China Law as California Law: There be Wolves out There, I wrote of how common it is for Chinese consumers and employees to sue foreign companies and I concluded that post with the following admonition on the importance of knowing and abiding by China law:

Yes, doing business in China is difficult and its laws are complicated, but that is true of pretty much every country I know. Be it California or China, it’s on you. People the world over — and that most certainly includes China — are ultra-litigious and that is not going to change soon if ever. Your defense to this is to know the laws and abide by them, to the letter. Saying that the laws are difficult or that there are bad people out there does not cut it and you ought to know that. Oral agreements in China are not worth the paper on which they are not printed and written agreements drafted by anyone not experienced with Chinese language contracts have no greater value.

You have been warned (yet again).

Today’s post is another warning.
 

 

Shenzhen employment law DongguanGuangdong Province (home to Shenzhen, Guangzhou, and Dongguan, among others) recently came out with new employment laws. The provincial High People’s Court recently released a document entitled the Answers to Difficult Questions regarding Adjudication of Labor Disputes Cases, with the primary goal of making the province’s labor adjudication more consistent. This post discusses a few of its key provisions and I will be writing more about this new law in future posts.

If during the course of the employment relationship, an employer suffers damages as a result of an employee’s gross negligence or intentional wrongdoing, the employer may pursue the employee for a single sum payment at the time of termination. However, the damages will be limited to direct economic losses suffered by the employer, and the court will consider the nature and degree of the employee’s conduct in determining the damages to the employer and it will not allow the employer to impose its own operational risks on the employee.

An employee leaving employment because of employer wrongdoing or abuse (such as failure to provide necessary labor protections or labor conditions), must clearly provide to the employer the reason why he or she was allegedly forced to terminate the employment contract. If the employee fails to notify the employer that he or she is terminating the employment relationship on grounds of employer wrongdoing or abuse, the employee cannot (in most cases) later demand statutory severance for employer abuse/wrongdoing. Though this new rule is employer-friendly, we still advise our employer clients to try to figure out why an employee is leaving. Even if the employee may be barred from suing for statutory severance, he or she may still sue for other issues, such as unresolved overtime pay or vacation penalties. Your goal as an employer is usually going to be to try to resolve all problems with a departing employee without getting sued.

When an employer moves its location, it constitutes major changes of the objective circumstances on which the employment contract was concluded, and for that reason, the employer must consult with the employee and reach an amendment to the parties’ contract. If the parties are unable to reach agreement, the employee can terminate the contract and demand the employer pay him or her statutory severance. However, if the employer’s move does not have any obvious (whatever that means) impact on the employee and the employer has taken reasonable measures to accommodate the employee (such as providing a company shuttle or paying the employee transportation subsidies), the employee’s demand for statutory severance may be denied as there is insufficient ground for the employee to unilaterally terminate the contract. This is not exactly new either, but it is worth repeating that it is virtually always safer to reach a written agreement (in Chinese!) with your employee before you change any clause of their employment contract.

An employee can demand its employer pay contract damages pursuant to the parties’ employment agreement. The applicable employment laws impose restrictions on employers imposing contract damages (similar to and called liquidated damages in some countries) on their employees, but they do not prevent an employee from collecting contract damages from the employer under certain circumstances. Unless there is a law to the contrary, the employee can demand contract damages in addition to statutory severance (or double statutory severance in the case of unlawful termination). If a contract is being proposed by the employee (which is rare but does happen from time to time), the employer should be careful in checking whether there is such a provision that specifies contract damages payable by the employer (note that we generally recommend our clients not use any contract presented to them by an employee). On the flip side, when an employee — especially an expat — gets to negotiate his or her own employment package, they should consider whether it makes sense to include a contract damages clause in their contract.

Stay tuned for more on the new employment law developments in Guangdong.

China IP lawyers
Elephants are so noble. Trade wars far less so.

I have been called by reporters at least a half dozen times in the last couple of weeks regarding the Trump Administration’s planned investigation of China’s IP practices. But what I tell these reporters fits so badly with THE narrative that my name is not showing up in print. Sorry, but I can’t help it.

Here’s the situation. The Trump Administration is claiming that China’s government forces American companies to relinquish its IP to China and my problem is that despite my firm having worked on literally hundreds of China transactions that involve IP, I have very little proof of this. So no real story there.

Here though is the story as seen from my eyes and from the eyes of the China attorneys at my firm, readily conceding that we have not seen even close to everything.

We have never been involved in a China transaction where it has been clear to us that the Chinese government has forced our client to relinquish its IP to China. We have though been involved in a million transactions where the Chinese party on the other side — sometimes a State Owned Entity, but way more often not — has vigorously and aggressively sought to get our client to part with its IP for a very low price. Is the Chinese government behind this sort of pressure? Don’t know? Probably sometimes, but probably most of the time not. If the transaction involves rubber duckies, we can assume not. If it involves next generation computer chips, well that is probably a very different story.

Anyway, as we write on here so often, there are many terrible technology transfer and other sorts of IP deals to be had with Chinese companies and we have too often — even against our China attorneys’ clear counsel to our clients not to do it — seen our clients make bad deals that will involve them turning over their IP with little to no chance of receiving full value for it. But these companies have not been forced, not in the sense that any government was forcing them to do anything. These companies were simply willing to take huge risks either because they could not grasp the risks or because they felt they had no other choice for financial reasons.

In Three Myths of China Technology Transfers, we wrote about how our clients all too often forge ahead with bad deals and why, and we nowhere mention government compulsion:

A Chinese company that intends to violate a licensing agreement and run off with the foreign company’s IP will usually have a very clear plan. What the China lawyers in my office call the Standard Plan works as follows. First, the Chinese company will negotiate in a way that guarantees a weak license that cannot be enforced against them by the foreign party. The tricks used to do this are quite standardized. Second, the Chinese company will ensure that it does not make any (or else it makes very few) payments until after it has already received the technology. If the Chinese company makes any payment at all, it will make a minimal number of payments, usually late and in violation of the agreement and then once it has received enough of the technology it seeks, it will cease making any payments entirely.

When our China attorneys encounter a Chinese company clearly working on the Standard Plan, we warn our clients. However, it is also typical for our clients to nonetheless want to forge on ahead. The client will usually explain how their situation is unique and that means the Chinese could not possibly be planning to breach.

We discuss again in China Technology Transfers: The Relationship and Deal Structure Myths how it is that American companies lose their IP to Chinese companies and we again leave out government force:

Due to a partnership relationship, the foreign side often wrongly believes it is somehow better protected against IP theft. The foreign side then lets down its guard, only to learn that its China partner has appropriated its core technology. This sense of partnership is most common with SMEs and technology startups, especially those companies whose owner is directly involved in the relationship with the Chinese entity.

In China and The Internet of Things and How to Destroy Your Own Company I rant about technology companies that literally destroy themselves by failing to do enough to protect their IP from China:

Well for what it is worth, I will no longer describe technology companies as a whole as our dumbest clients when it comes to China. No, that honor now clearly belongs to a subset of technology companies: Internet of Things companies. And mind you, we love, love, love Internet of Things companies. For proof of this, just go to our recent post, China and the Internet of Things: A Love Story. Internet of Things (a/k/a IoT) companies are sprouting all over the place and they are booming. Most importantly for us, they need a ton of legal work because just about all IoT products are being made in China, more particularly, in Shenzhen. And just about all IoT products need a ton of complicated IP assistance.

So then why am I saying they are so dumb about China? Because they are relinquishing their intellectual property to Chinese companies more often, more wantonly, and more destructively than companies in any other industry I (or any of my firm’s other Chinese lawyers) have ever seen. Ever. And by a stunningly wide margin.

I then list out the following as “my prime example, taken from at least a half dozen real life examples in just the last few months”:

IoT Company: We just completed our Kickstarter (sometimes Indiegogo) campaign and we totally killed it and so now we are ready to get serious about protecting our IP in China.

One of our China Lawyers: Great. Where are you right now with China?

IoT Company: We have been working with a great company in Shenzhen. Together we are working on wrapping up the product and it should be ready in a few months.

China Lawyer: Okay. Do you have any sort of agreement with this Chinese company regarding your IP or production costs or anything else?

IoT Company: We have an MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) that talks about how we will cooperate. They’ve really been great. They have told us that they would enter into a contract with us whenever we are ready.

China Lawyer: Can you please send us the MOU? Have you talked about what that contract will say?

IoT Company: Sure, we can send the MOU. It’s one page. No, we haven’t really talked much beyond just what we need to do to get the product completed.

China Lawyer: Okay, we will look at your MOU and then get back to you with our thoughts.

Then, a day or two later we a conversation like the following ensues:

China Lawyer: We looked at your “MOU” and we have bad news for you. We think there is a very good chance a Chinese court would view that MOU as a contract. (For why we say this, check out Beware Of Being Burned By The China MOU/LOI) And the Chinese language portion of the MOU — which is all that a Chinese court will be considering — is very different from the English language portion. The Chinese language portion says that any IP the two of you develop (the IoT company and the Chinese manufacturer) belongs to the Chinese company. So what we see is that as things now stand, there is a very good chance the Chinese company owns your IP. This being the case, there is no point in our writing a Product Development Agreement because your Chinese manufacturer is not going to sign that.

IoT Company: (And I swear we get this sort of response at least 90 percent of the time) I’m not worried. I think you have it wrong. I’m sure that they will sign such an agreement because we orally agreed on this before we even started the project.

China Lawyer: That’s fine, but I still think it makes sense for you to at least make sure that the Chinese company will sign a new contract making clear that the IP associated with your product belongs to you, because if they won’t sign something that says that, there is no point in our drafting such a contract and, most importantly, there is no point in your paying us to do so.

So far not a single such IoT company has been able to come back to us with an agreement from their Chinese manufacturer to sign.

Again, no government force, just an overzealous and insufficiently careful foreign company.

Now before anyone excoriates me for ignoring reality, let me say that I have read about instances where the Chinese government has “forced” foreign companies to turn over their IP to China; high speed rail is an often cited example of that. And I do not doubt that it happens in critical industries (nuclear power would be another example). And I am also not unaware of how China is increasingly forcing foreign companies to store their data in China, which absolutely puts technology at risk. But even in these instances the foreign company has some choice. Not good choices, I know. And arguably it is no choice at all when the decision is between doing business in China or not. The last thing I want to do is get all philosophical on anyone regarding what constitutes choice so I will leave it to our individual readers to determine for themselves where on the continuum of force and choice they want to put any and all of the above.

There is plenty to complain about how China protects IP and there is plenty to complain about how China protects foreign companies that do business in China or with China, but I am just not sure complaining about forced IP transfers goes at the top of that list for most American companies. When I talk with American and European and Australian companies about China their biggest legal complaint is invariably how expensive it is for them to comply with China laws and how they resent that their Chinese competitors generally are not held to the same legal standards.

A couple of years ago, I gave the following testimony before The US-China Economic and Security Review Commission of the United States Congress:

I was introduced as an expert, and I’d like to qualify that by saying do not think of myself as an expert. I am just a private practice lawyer who represents American and Australian companies and some European and Canadian companies as well in China.

I’m going to tell you a little bit about what we do so you can get a little bit better perspective of where I’m coming from on this. The bulk of my firms’ clients are small and medium-size businesses, mostly American businesses, but some European and Australian and Canadian businesses as well. Most of them have revenues between 100 million and a billion a year. Our clients are mostly tech companies, manufacturing companies and service businesses.

About 20 percent of our work is for companies in the movie and entertainment industry. We have some clients in highly-regulated industries, like health care, senior care, banking, insurance, finance, telecom and mining, but those companies make up less than ten percent of our client base.

Most of the China work we do for our clients is relatively routine. We help them register as companies in China. We register their trademarks and copyrights in China. We draft their contracts with Chinese companies. We help them with their employment, tax and customs matters. We oversee their litigation in China, and we represent them in arbitrations in China. We help them buy Chinese companies.

For our clients, the big anti-foreign issue is whether they will be allowed to conduct business at all in China as that is certainly not always a given. Certain industries in China are shut off or limited to foreign businesses acting alone. For our clients, publishing and movies are most prominent.

Essentially anything that might allow for nongovernmental communication to or between Chinese citizens is problematic, but it is not clear to me that these limitations are intended to be anti-foreign, as China does not really want any private entities, foreign or Chinese, engaging in these activities without strict governmental oversight.

So do these limits against foreign companies arise from anti-foreign bias or just the Chinese government’s belief that it can better control Chinese companies? To our clients, that distinction doesn’t matter.

On day-to-day legal matters, our clients are almost invariably treated pursuant to law, and so long as they abide by the law, they seldom have any problems. The problem for our clients isn’t so much how the Chinese government treats them; it’s how they are treated as compared to their Chinese competitors who are less likely to abide by the laws and more likely to get away with it.

I have no statistics on this. I doubt there are any statistics on this, but I see it and I hear it all the time.

I see it when one of our clients buys a Chinese business that has half of its employees off the grid and has facilities that are not even close to being in compliance with use laws, and I know foreign companies cannot get away with that.

And I hear it from Chinese employees of our clients who insist that there is no need for our clients to follow various laws. They insist there is no need to follow various laws and to do so is stupid. Is this disparity due to anti-foreign bias or is it due to corruption? Again, for our clients, the answer is irrelevant.

Is the Trump administration’s IP investigation a negotiating ploy done as much to get at disparate treatment as it is to get at forced technology transfers? I do not think it is, but some who know more about such things tell me it may be.

CNN was the only one of the media companies that both interviewed me on the above issues and ended up quoting me and I like how it handled the issue in its article, President Trump is set to crank up the pressure on China over trade:

Beijing has other ways of getting its hands on valuable commercial information. Officials often insist on taking a close look at technology that foreign companies want to sell in China.

“Chinese government authorities jeopardize the value of trade secrets by demanding unnecessary disclosure of confidential information for product approvals,” the American Chamber of Commerce in China said in a report published in April.

Some experts say that handing over technology has effectively become a cost of doing business in China — a market too big for most companies to ignore.

“Many Chinese companies go after technology hard and the tactics they use show up again and again, leading us to believe there is some force (the government?) teaching them how to do these things,” said Dan Harris, a Seattle-based attorney who advises international companies on doing business in China.

“The thing is that the foreign companies that give up their technology usually do so at least somewhat of their own volition,” he told CNNMoney. “Yes, maybe they need to do so to get into China, but they also have the choice not to go into China, right?”

Closing the stable door?

Other analysts say that the U.S. administration is coming to the problem too late.

“Intellectual property (IP) theft is yesterday’s issue,” wrote Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“In part because of past technology transfer and in part because of heavy, sustained government investment in science and research, China has developed its own innovative capabilities,” he wrote.

“Creating new IP in the United States is more important than keeping IP from China.”

These are really complicated issues and I realize the above is more of a stream of consciousness “thoughts dump” than a coherent position paper. So more than ever, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Direct marketing in ChinaBecause we are one of very few law firms that represent foreign companies doing direct marketing in China we get quite a few emails from companies (and even individuals) regarding China’s direct marketing laws. Long story short, China does not particularly like direct marketing and its direct marketing laws are so restrictive that the industry there has little in common with direct marketing in the United States or even Europe.

The other day, one of our China lawyers received an email from a potential client with a link to a United States government site describing China’s direct marketing laws. The email was short and merely asked whether the information on this site was accurate or not.

It is accurate and current and and helpful and important and to the point and for those reasons I reprint it in full below.

Direct selling is defined by Chinese regulators as a type of business model involving the recruitment of direct marketing sales agents or promoters and the selling of products to end-consumers outside fixed business locations or outlets.

As part of China‘s WTO commitment, the Chinese Government agreed to allow market access for wholesale or retail trade services away from a fixed location. However, these new regulations are quite restrictive, especially in regards to multi-level marketing (MLM) organizations, which are characterized as illegal pyramids under these regulations.  Sales promoters earn commission only according to their sales performance and the proportion of payment to sales promoters should not exceed 30 per cent of the income generated from sales.  Furthermore, commission paid to a salesman is not allowed to be calculated based on the MLM structure, and language exists requiring the construction of fixed location service centers in each area where sales occur for the purpose of after-sales service and consultation. To obtain a direct sales license from the government, further barriers exist as evidenced by a three-year foreign experience rule, a required RMB 20-100 million (USD 2.9-14.5 million) bond deposit and a RMB 80 million (USD 11.6 million) registered capital threshold, among other requirements. Nonetheless, several major international companies have had success in overcoming these barriers. Having said this, the Chinese Government has remained slow to approve direct-sales license applications for new entrants over the past few years. In general, the Chinese central government and the relevant authorities at central and local levels tend to heavily regulate and supervise this industry.

Any questions?

China e-commerceE-commerce for Foreign Invested Entities (FIEs) in China is in upheaval. Beginning with the much discussed liberalization of the investment cap for foreign entities conducting e-commerce business in China, and most recently with the draft e-commerce law, big changes are afoot. This post briefly summarizes the more important changes, briefly assesses their effect in practice, and speculates as to the underlying trends and future developments.

Backdrop. As pretty much everyone already knows, China’s retail e-commerce market has grown massively in recent years.  Matthew Crabbe gives some interesting totals and projections: firstly the Chinese online retail market was worth a total of 120.8 billion RMB in 2008, rising to 6,433.9 billion RMB in 2017, including B2C and C2C sales, with B2C overtaking C2C in 2015.  Cross-border e-commerce (Haitao –  defined as goods sold from outside China into China, not including foreign goods sold within China) as a proportion of B2C online retail was 1.3% in 2011, growing to 4.8% in 2017. This means the market estimate is 303.8 billion RMB in 2017, which is significant compared even to the total US online retail market, for example.

Summary of China’s e-commerce reforms. Since 2001, the Foreign-Invested Telecom Enterprises (FITE) Regulations have contained an investment cap on foreign investment in Value-Added Telecoms Services (VATS) businesses of 50% ownership.   There is now a limited exception to this relating to e-commerce business. The following brief timeline will illustrate the main events:

14 March 2011: China’s 12th Five Year Plan contains a broad injunction for the economy to move from an export-led manufacturing economy to a consumer economy.

7 January 2014: the “MIIT SHFTZ Opinion 2014” made it possible for Foreign Invested Entities (FIE) in the Shanghai Free Trade Zone (SHFTZ) to own a 55% share in for profit e-commerce businesses with nationwide reach, an increase from the previously allowed 50% investment cap for (VATS) business under the FITE Regulations, thus meaning that a nationwide reaching e-commerce entity could be majority foreign-owned.

13 January 2015: the “MIIT SHFTZ Opinion 2015” took the changes in the MIIT SHFTZ Opinion 2014 further, by allowing 100% ownership of an e-commerce business by a Foreign Invested Entity in the SHFTZ.

10 April 2015: Part IV s20 of China’s 2015 Foreign Investment Catalogue made an explicit exception for e-commerce when discussing the investment cap of 50% in VATS business. This change was widely understood as removing the limitations on investment ratio in the nationwide regime for e-commerce FIEs.

7 May 2015: The State Council E-Commerce Opinions contain an instruction to various Chinese governmental bodies to remove the current investment cap for FIEs in e-commerce businesses, expanding the SHFTZ liberalization nationwide. Various simplifications relating to licensing were also included. (see China E-Commerce: The New Rules for discussion of the State Council E-Commerce Opinions.

19 June 2015: MIIT Circular 196 appears to be the implementation of the State Council E-Commerce Opinions, and it allows foreign equity ratios in e-commerce businesses to be raised to 100%, explicitly stating that this is a nationwide extension of the SHFTZ pilot program.

27 December 2016: the Draft PRC E-Commerce Law was published. It applies to all e-commerce business within China, including e-commerce businesses outside China that sell into China. It differentiates between third-party e-commerce platforms (e.g. TMall and Taobao) and other e-commerce operators, such as self-operated retail portals. Chapter 5 deals specifically with cross-border e-commerce. However, detail is lacking, and its main point seems to be that China wishes to promote development of “cross-border e-commerce,” which is defined as “imports and exports of goods or services through the Internet or other information networks’.” Chapter 5 deals in particular with customs clearance, “electronization,” and personal information.

There have also been a number of other initiatives, such as e-commerce pilot zones, for example in Hangzhou and elsewhere.

What is behind the reforms? On the face of it, there seems to have been major progress in opening the Chinese market to international e-commerce operators. As is so often true when it comes to doing business in China, all may not be as it seems. It is hard to ascertain what is happening fore foreign companies seeking to do e-commerce in China, but since the above changes were implemented, very few VATS licenses have been issued to FIES. One example is Heiwado (China) Co., Ltd, a Chinese WFOE reported to have two Japanese shareholders and a market capitalization of around US$50 million, and which has been involved in traditional and online retail in central China for several years. See First WFOE Obtains VATS License From MIIT.

So what is going on?  There are several possibilities.

Firstly, one factor may be “bringing order to the market” and eliminating legal grey areas. Much of the selling of foreign goods online in China has consisted of informal grey-market imports, often brought into China as personal goods in suitcases and then retailed on Taobao via “Taobao Agent Purchasing.” This means goods are entering the Chinese market without the relevant customs clearance, duties, and product standard compliance. China has a strong incentive for bringing this industry within the scope of its regulation.

A related point is that although the FITE Regulations contain strict investment caps in telecoms business, foreign investment in telecoms is in fact pervasive in China, through the controversial Variable Interest Entity (VIE) structure. Another argument is that removing the investment cap for e-commerce companies is a pragmatic move to enable full compliance by foreign-invested e-commerce businesses. Why though bring e-commerce businesses under the regulatory umbrella, but not other internet businesses? One hypothesis is that full compliance in e-commerce is seen as an achievable and desirable medium-term aim, with overall benefits to China, whereas the policy pressure on other areas of the internet pushes in the opposite direction, with no desire to liberalize and allow foreign participation.

It is also important to remember that discussion of “cross-border e-commerce” in China includes outbound as well as inbound e-commerce. In fact, the focus of the policy seems to be on encouraging outbound e-commerce. One much-discussed theme in the development of China’s economy has been inviting foreign partners in, learning from them, then applying this knowledge internationally once it has been digested by Chinese entities. Opening the market with one hand, and yet maintaining restrictions with the other hand gives the illusion of liberalization while allowing domestic companies to dominate the market. With respect to examples like Heiwado, it is really a very minor player. One interpretation could be that an example like this makes little impact overall, and yet helps maintain an illusion that the market is opening.

Interestingly, online selling on domestic Chinese third-party retail platforms like Taobao is now relatively easy for foreign businesses. This in some ways represents an ideal scenario for China. If inbound cross-border e-commerce takes place under supervision of a Chinese entity, Chinese government oversight is much easier and Chinese businesses get a piece of the pie. For the foreign retailer, this is also a low-risk strategy. The availability of this alternative may be a strong factor in the apparent lack of applications for e-commerce VATS licenses by WFOEs. Does conducting standalone e-commerce in China as a WFOE even make commercial sense?

From the point of view of foreign investment in third-party retail platforms, the dominance of the domestic players presents formidable obstacles to the market. It is probably more plausible for Alibaba to take on eBay and Amazon internationally than vice- versa. Interestingly, Alibaba, the owner of Tmall and Taobao, is itself structured as a VIE. See Why Alibaba is good for China VIEs.

Future developments. China’s removal of its e-commerce investment cap does not appear to have led to any great increase in market access for foreign investors. However, it does fit into a general picture of increased access to the Chinese market for foreign goods, albeit on Chinese terms. Although the e-commerce market as a whole will continue growing, Matthew Crabbe’s prediction is that the Haitao market will peak at about 5% of total online retail sales in China. If that is correct, China’s e-commerce gold rush may not be quite what everyone expected, and today’s status quo is also the shape of things to come. The future of China’s e-commerce market lies largely in selling through established Chinese channels.

* This post was written by Edward Hillier, a New Zealand-qualified lawyer and researcher. This post is based on academic research he submitted to Anglia Ruskin University in 2017 for his LLM dissertation entitled New Opportunities in Online Retail For Foreign Investors in China. The author would like to thank Matthew Crabbe of Mintel for market and retail industry insight.

China joint venture lawyer
Negotiating the Chinese joint venture maze

We have recently been getting an onslaught of foreign companies (mostly North American and European) looking to do joint ventures in China. China joint ventures tend to be cyclical, rising when the business climate in China is for any reason difficult, and falling when it gets easier. It would seem we are in yet another Chinese joint venture up cycle.

One of the first things we always seek to do when contacted by a company seeking legal assistance on their China joint venture deal is to try to figure out what they want our role as lawyers to be, so we can provide them a good fee estimate. there are three basic things lawyers typically do when providing representation on a China joint venture deal: 1) provide counsel regarding the joint venture agreement; 2) provide counsel regarding the joint venture entity formation; and 3) do the actual work involved in forming the joint venture entity itself.
In our initial communications with potential and actual joint venture clients, we seek to discern what our role will be on all three of these things, especially the third one: how much involvement our firm’s lawyers will have in forming the China joint venture. If the Chinese side (or its lawyers) are experienced with how to form a joint venture, it usually behooves our client to let the China side handle that aspect of the transaction, with our role being to simply oversee that process to make sure it goes smoothly. The below email is from one of our lawyers to a new client that just retained us to provide it legal counsel regarding its China joint venture deal. I am running that email today because it provides a good overview on some of the common issues that arise in China joint venture transactions, while also nicely setting out the different roles your China attorney might play in such a deal.
It appears you want me to review documents, with the actual work forming the entity and setting up the factory to be done by your JV partner.
I briefly reviewed briefly the JV contract. The document is written in a common law style, but it is clear and complete. Are you certain you want to operate in China in JV structure? Are you certain the proposed amount of capital will be sufficient to set up and begin operations for a manufacturing venture? Are you certain you are willing to contribute ownership of your intellectual property to the JV company? Are you certain you would prefer to transfer ownership of your IP to the JV company, rather than just license your IP to that entity? Are you certain you are willing to earn income from this project solely from distribution of profits from the JV company? Are you certain you are willing to give full control over this project to the Chinese side? Your JV contract assumes you can exercise some form of control through the board of directors, but this is an illusion.
If your answer to all of the above is yes, then my review of the documents would be extremely limited. If your answer to any of the above is no or that in light of my questions you are not clear on how you wish to proceed or simply that you need more information, then I would provide for a normal review, outlining the issues. However, if you already understand and are ready to move forward on the basis of this contract, there is no need for this step.
Finally, note that forming a foreign invested enterprise in Shenzhen is a difficult process. Though your partner will be dealing with the Chinese side, much of the process and much of the delay involves obtaining information and authenticated documents from your company and very few Chinese companies (or even Chinese lawyers) have experience in that process. You should discuss with your partner how you will handle that side of the formation process. Note also that setting up a factory in Shenzhen involves all sorts of required documentation and is a complicated and time consuming procedure. However, if your Chinese JV partner has all of the above under control, none of this should raise any issues. You should, however, ascertain whether they understand the JV formation process. In our experience, most Chinese “partners” do not understand this process, which can cause confusion and delay and added expense down the road.
As always, if you have any questions, please do not hesitate.
For more on China joint ventures, check out the following: